Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Exploitation in Migration: Unacceptable but Inevitable

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Exploitation in Migration: Unacceptable but Inevitable

Article excerpt

For the millions of people who want or need to move, migration has become progressively more expensive and perilous. Legal access to preferred destinations is now an option only for the privileged few. The rest are forced into the arms of those able to help them circumvent ever-increasing controls and deterrents. Migrant smuggling, the business of moving people across borders for profit, is a sordid and dangerous enterprise, often placing lives and well-being at serious risk. And the dangers do not end there. Many of the world's migrants find themselves deeply in debt to recruitment agencies, brokers, and sometimes their own employers before they even start work. In too many cases, these asymmetrical arrangements reach the level of human trafficking: Victims are tricked or coerced into situations of exploitation from which they cannot escape. This article argues that such practices, while unacceptable, are also inevitable. Without profound reforms to global migration regimes--and indeed to the organization of the global economy--there is likely no effective solution to migration-related exploitation. But important steps can be taken, even within the limits of current political constraints, to minimize vulnerability and harm. These include promoting political and legal acceptance of basic rights for all migrants, developing quality control systems for international labor recruitment, eliminating recruitment fees and sponsorship schemes, and co-opting civil society in an effort to increase transparency and accountability of governments and business activities.


In October 2013, an overcrowded fishing boat, carrying smuggled migrants from Libya to the Italian coast, was set on fire to draw the attention of rescuers. (1) Over a hundred passengers were rescued after the vessel capsized, but more than 360 women, men, and children perished. It was alleged that vessels in the area ignored distress signals and failed to come to the rescue of drowning passengers, perhaps fearing prosecution for abetting migrant smuggling. Investigations revealed that some of the passengers had been subject to severe exploitation and that many had been forced to pay smugglers for their

freedom from a detention center in Libya and the onward journey to Europe. (2)

Each month, tens of thousands of Nepali citizens travel to the Gulf countries for work, contributing to remittances that make up close to a quarter of Nepal's gross domestic product (GDP). (3) The costs are high. A "ladder of intermediaries," essential to navigating the complex emigration and placement process, ensures that most migrants are heavily in debt before even leaving home. (4) At their destination, they are at high risk of exploitation and physical and sexual abuse, routinely excluded from the protection of national labor laws, and prevented from changing jobs without the permission of their employers. Whether abroad or back home, there is no effective access to justice for even the very worst cases of exploitation. (5)

The overland routes from Central America and Mexico to the United States expose migrants to "disproportionate levels of risk of human rights violations, disappearance, and death." (6) Organized criminal gangs extort fees from their "human cargo" for safe passage through Mexico and across the U.S. border, sometimes also forcing them to carry narcotics. Those who cannot pay are frequently injured or killed. The Mexican Human Rights Commission has estimated that around 20,000 migrants are kidnapped for ransom each year, sometimes with the complicity of national authorities. (7)

Over the past decade, Yemen has emerged as a major transit point and destination for smuggled migrants from the Horn of Africa, many of them Somali and Ethiopian asylum seekers. A recent meta-analysis of available information confirms that throughout their journey and at their destination, these migrants are highly vulnerable to physical violence, sexual assault, extortion, trafficking, and detention by national authorities. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.